Friday, April 27, 2012

The Mighty Tasty Aurochs

Throughout the podcast series I plan on supplementing the episodes with some blog posts about some of the more interesting features of European history that I leave out of the episodes. I'm going to have to leave some things out for time concerns, so I'll try to make it up with these supplemental blogs.

An aurochs skeleton that dates to around 7500 BC. It
was found in Denmark along with another near full
skeleton. Notice the horns and how they point out. Those
were the horns that early modern humans had to deal with
in order to get a descent burger. Thank heavens for Five Guys.
On Episode 2 Paleolithic Europe, we mentioned the mighty tasty Aurochs. These guys are so fascinating that they deserve a blog post.  Aurochs were the ancestors to most of today's many species of domesticated cattle. They were truly massive animals, growing as tall as 5'11. Though, the northern Aurochs grew to be a bit larger than their southern cousins. They also weighed over 1500 lbs on average. But a number of specimens found put the weight of the beast at well over a ton and a British ton at that (2204 lbs, not the measly American ton of 2000 lbs).

If we were transported back in time to see an Aurochs we'd easily recognize it as a species of cow, but it had some major differences to today's varieties. First, the horns were enormous and why not? It had the muscle mass to support them. Might as well go big. The legs of the aurochs were skinnier than modern cows and longer too. This gave them a very broad look up front, sort of like a cartoon version of a bull.

How aurochs behaved is a bit of a mystery and causes some disagreement between scientists. Some think that aurochs basically behaved like modern cows and other creatures like Buffalo and Bison. Others think they might have been different and more solitary creatures. This line of thinking comes from observing the tail end of aurochs existence on earth. But, this could have been because of limited numbers and the loss of the wild open plains and forests they once roamed so freely in. Before domestication, the aurochs roamed all over Europe (excluding Ireland and Iceland) throughout Asia and into North Africa.

The taming of Aurochs would happen independently in various regions around the world. This can explain some of the wide varieties of cattle we have throughout Europe and Asia. The domestication began somewhere around 10,000 years ago in the Indian Subcontinent and around the same time in parts of the Near East. The taming of the Aurochs happened a little later around 6000 BC in the Caucasian Mountains and Mesopotamia.  Then the domestication would travel into other parts of Europe and slowly most of the wild aurochs were no longer wild.

The few surviving Aurochs found their movement restricted by civilization and climate change so they holed up in Lithuania, Moldavia, Transylvania, East Prussia, and Poland. Hunting of the last wild aurochs became an activity that would become limited. First, only nobles could hunt them and finally only the royal houses. The 1% only could enjoy the tasty hamburgers. But as the population still dwindled we see an early attempt at ecological activism. Kings hired people as gamekeepers to help the remaining aurochs survive. But it was too late. The population dwindled further and further until the last aurochs died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest in Poland. I joked on the podcast about the Swedes taking offense to this and invading Poland in response. The Swedes did invade Poland shortly the death of the last aurochs, but this was because of a combination of some uppity Polish Cossacks and Ukrainian peasants distrust of the Lithuanian-Polish rule and Swedish opportunism. However, in the looting that came out of the war the skull of the last aurochs found its way into the hands of the Swedes and remains in a Swedish museum to this day.

I keep referring to the aurochs as tasty and there is a reason for this. Obviously the kings and nobles wanted to keep all the meat to themselves and then tried to preserve it when it was running out. But the aurochs has been depicted throughout history.

 Here is a picture of some petroglyphs of the aurochs in a cave in Bourdeilles, France that date back some 18,000 years ago.

Here is a picture of the famous cave painting in Lascaux, France that date around 17,000 years ago. The aurochs were still prevalent enough when Julius Caesar was tromping around Gaul that he mentions them in his book The Gallic War.

Another reason I think that they must have been so tasty is that people have been trying to bring them back into existence since the 1920's. A couple of German brothers starting breeding aurochs descendants in the hope of being able to make an aurochswurst sandwich to enjoy with a bit of sauerkraut. It didn't quite work, but the resulting Heck Cattle does have some of aurochs' features.

Polish scientists are hoping to reconstruct aurochs from extracting DNA from the ancient remains of some of the aurochs they have in their possession. I don't believe there are any plans in Sweden to give them back the Jaktorów head. Another group of scientists have started the TaurOs project, a Danish effort to bring back the aurochs into existence. With any luck, we'll be able to sit down to an aurochs cheeseburger with our grandkids.

No comments:

Post a Comment